Principal Characteristics of the Balkan Food Culture
The food culture of the Balkan Peninsula depended upon the historic, geographical, climatic, social, and religious elements. There are three main food culture areas: the Mediterranean, the continental lowland, and the continental mountain areas. The Mediterranean area is divided into the coastal and the continental parts. People living along the coast tend their vineyards, grow olive trees, different kinds of vegetables, citrus fruits, spices, and they fish. Wine, olive oil, cabbage, kale, different kinds of salad greens, cauliflower, figs, grapes, almonds, cherries, marascas, and different fishes are their main staples. The continental part of the Mediterranean area has a well-developed agriculture. Farmers breed mostly sheep, goats, and poultry, to a lesser extent also cattle and pigs. Fields yield crops of wheat and corn, in some places also rice, cotton, sesame, and poppy. Fertile valleys are sprinkled with vineyards. Meals, therefore, consist mostly of meat dishes, but also of milk, milk products, and vegetables. Lakes provide freshwater fishes. The continental lowland area, which is distinctly agricultural, starts north of the Balkan Mountains and Šarplanina. Vast fields of corn and wheat give plenty of food. Farmers grow oats, barley, rye, millet, and buckwheat. Since wheat is mostly sold for profit, dishes consist mainly of corn; corn bread is eaten in most places. Because of an abundance of corn, which is very important as fodder, cattle and pig farming are very developed; in the north, sheep and goats are bred as well. The meat of these animals plays a very important role in the food culture of the local population. Farmers also grow fruit, especially apple, pear, plum, and they cultivate walnut trees. Sheep farming is important in the mountainous part of the Dinaric Alps and in the Rhodope Mountains; less important is cattle breeding. Meals generally consist of milk and different kinds of cheese, corn bread (proja), and polenta (kaèamak). Many dishes are prepared from cornmeal, eggs, and the kajmak cheese; one of these dishes is èimbur, boiled eggs covered with kajmak. Also popular are vegetable dishes made from cabbage, beans, onions, green peppers, and eggplant. Vegetables pickled in vinegar (turšija) are consumed in winter. Meat dishes consist mostly of lamb and sheep meats, usually roasted or prepared in a number of different ways. Beef and pork, which are usually dried in the air and made into prosciutto, or smoked, are eaten during the winter months (pastrma).
Individual Groups of Dishes
The food culture of the Balkan Peninsula displays Asian as well as west European influences. Even though the Oriental influence has been very strong in the last several centuries, ethnic characteristics and traditions have been preserved. Dishes consumed in this region therefore contain many similar elements, but may also greatly differ from each other. One of the characteristics shared by most is the use of numerous spices, onions, garlic, tomatoes, parsley, paprika, and capers.
Soups are prepared from vegetables, meat, herbs, or different kinds of fish. Meat soups usually contain a variety of vegetables, as well. Throughout the Balkans, spring is the time for a thick lamb soup (mayiritsa). Other popular vegetable soups are potato, leek, corn, or bean soups, or a soup made of zucchini with milk or eggs. Along the Danube River, fishermen prepare thick soups (Alaska èorba), while in coastal areas, they make soup from sea fishes (the Greek khakhavia).
> In the past, meat did not play a central role in the food culture of the Balkans. It was, nevertheless, a highly esteemed food, which could be prepared in a variety of ways. Grilling and spit roasting are characteristic of the Balkan region, and lambs, kids, or pigs are roasted on spits on prominent occasions, such as weddings and New Year’s Day. People grill seasoned minced meat shaped in different forms (èevapèièi, pleskavica), kabobs (vešalica, šaši kebasi), lamb and veal cutlets, beefsteaks, or small pieces of meat with vegetables and mushrooms (muèkalica, krzatmas).
Also very popular are meatballs (èufte), be it in or without a sauce, for instance, the pasha of Turkey or the Greek kreftaidakiya. Minced meat is also used for the preparation of meat pie (burek), which can also be filled with cheese or vegetables. Meat can be served in a stew (goulash, paprika). Chicken is roasted with an addition of spices and vegetables, such as olives, peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, and eggplant. Duck or goose is most often served roasted, sometimes with filling.
In Balkan cuisine, vegetables are often prepared as a main or side dish, usually consisting of legumes, cabbage, kale, root crops, zucchini, peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant. These vegetables are made into a ragout, or filled with rice, meat, corn, vegetable, or cheese, or stewed with rice and meat (uveè). Very popular dishes are those which are made from a mixture of vegetables, meat, and rice (sarma), or those prepared with vine leaves ( jalanci dolmasi), or other leaves (cabbage, kale, chard). There are different casseroles in which meat is prepared together with vegetables, for instance, the Albanian shepherd’s pot, or the Bosnian pot. The Turkish moussaka, a baked dish consisting of layers of sautéed vegetables, meat, rice, or potatoes, is prepared throughout the Balkan Peninsula.
Oriental influence is most strongly felt in the great variety of pastries, which have always been an important part of festive meals in all Balkan countries. Among the most popular are different pastries drenched in sugar syrup, and strudels. Most of the sweets contain walnuts and almonds, which are also put into stuffed apples (tufahije), or fill walnut pies, cakes, and the famous baklava cakes made from paper-thin dough. Nuts are sprinkled on sweet noodles (kadaif ). Žito, wheat with walnuts, is a festive dish from Serbia. On Christmas and Easter, which are among the most prominent holidays in the region, different kinds of cakes are still served; one of them is the pinca from the Croatian coastal area, or Greek melomacarona, and another is kourabiethes. Vasiljica or badnjaèa are prepared in Serbia and Bosnia. Tables filled with festive dishes display a great variety of the Balkan cuisine and a strong attachment to the traditional culinary tradition.